Stephanie’s Challenge – M. K. Eidem

“I just don’t know what to do,” Jacinda sighed as she turned away from the ‘mother’ Tausendjahriger Rosenstock. The beautiful bush had been moved from her home the month before to outside Jotham’s private chambers in the King’s Garden. It now bloomed the violet and gold variegated roses she’d seen in her dream. Taking the glass of wine Jotham held out to her, she moved into his embrace. It had been two moon cycles since the Royal Ball at the House of Knowledge where Jacinda had been presented to Carina as the next Queen of the House of Protection. Two moon cycles since her daughter had thrown herself in front of her, not only protecting Jacinda from an assassination attempt but also protecting King Jotham. The man her mother loved. While she and Jotham had been unharmed, Stephanie had been critically injured. The metal hair sticks Adelaide Pajari had attacked with shredded one of her daughter’s lungs so severely that it had to be removed. Because of that, Stephanie could no longer be the first woman to ever serve in the King’s Royal Guard. Her daughter was devastated. Oh, she was doing her best to hide it especially with the Union fast approaching, but Jacinda knew her daughter. “Let me speak to her,” Jotham said, kissing the top of her head. “After all, she’s now my daughter too.” Jacinda couldn’t express how Jotham’s words affected her.

He had wholly accepted her children as his own while still honoring Stephan as their father. It also helped that their sons, Danton, Ethan, and Barek were getting along so well. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought they’d grown up together, especially with the way they joked and how her first son, Danton played the ‘older’ brother with Jotham’s first son, Barek, at least in private. “Thank you. That means so much to me, but I don’t know what you could say that I haven’t already.” She leaned back slightly in his embrace to look up at him. “Let me at least try.” He gave her a look that had her shaking her head. “You know I can never tell you no when you smile at me like that.” Jotham’s smile grew wider.

“I will have to remember that.” Chapter One Stephanie let her head fall back to rest on the top of the couch as the doorbell rang. Ancestors, she was so tired of people. Tired of them showing up. Tired of them asking her how she was doing. Tired of them asking how it felt to be a hero. What her thoughts were on her mother Union to the King. And the big one… what was she going to do now? It had been a never-ending parade of Assemblymen, media, family, and friends, ever since the Healer had allowed her to return home to finish her recovery. For the first few weeks, her mother had insisted on staying with her which had created a whole other slew of problems. First was security.

Her mother was now the future Queen of the House of Protection, and after the assassination attempt, Jotham was taking no chances. Royal Guards stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder around the house even though the would-be assassin, Adelaide Pajari, had been apprehended. The woman was bat-shit crazy. A purist of the worst kind who’d always hated Stephanie’s mother because she’d been born into the House of Healing. The second was the fact that Stephanie had never been able to lie to her mother. So while others believed her when she told them she was fine, her mother knew better, and she was right. Stephanie wasn’t fine, but it was something only she could work out, and that wasn’t possible with her mother’s concerned eyes on her at all times. Stephanie knew her mother felt responsible for what had happened to her but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t her mother’s fault that she’d fallen in love with the King. It wasn’t her mother’s fault Jotham had fallen in love with her.

It wasn’t her mother’s fault that Pajari had attacked or that Stephanie had been injured doing her job protecting the Royal Family. It is what Stephanie had been training for all her life. Stephanie knew all that, but it didn’t make it any easier knowing she would never be able to do it again. When the bell rang again, she let out a frustrated growl and surged to her feet. At least she tried to. The sudden stabbing pain in her side stopped her, reminding her she still wasn’t completely healed. “I’ve got it,” Myesha called, drying her hands on her apron as she walked out of the kitchen. “You just stay right there.” “I’m fine, Myesha,” she argued, moving more carefully. “I can get it.

” But Myesha had already disappeared down the hallway. The murmur of voices told Stephanie that whoever it was Myesha had let them in. Taking a deep breath, or at least as deep as she could with one lung, she pasted a smile on her face and turned. She didn’t expect to see the man who easily moving toward her in his expertly tailored suit the exact color of his dark hair that had just a trace of silver in it. “Majesty.” When she went to bow, Jotham waved her off. “No, Stephanie. I’ve told you that’s not necessary. We’re family now.” “Not yet,” she told him quietly.

“True, but soon.” He gestured to the couch. “May we sit? There is something we need to discuss.” “Of course, Majesty.” Returning to her seat, she did her best to hide her discomfort but knew she hadn’t fooled him. “Your injury is still causing you pain.” His brows creased in concern. “Now and then, Majesty. It’s to be expected.” “I suppose it is and I’ve repeatedly asked you to call me Jotham.

” Stephanie said nothing. She was still having a problem with that, with being on a first name basis with the King of the House of Protection. Jotham sighed but sat. “I’m here because your mother is concerned about you.” “I’ve repeatedly told her that I’m fine.” “Yes, but she doesn’t believe you anymore than I do. She blames herself for you being injured—”” “That’s ridiculous,” Stephanie interrupted as she straightened in her seat. “And for you no longer being able to achieve your dream,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Jacinda told me how you wanted to be the first woman to ever serve as a Royal Guard. How you wanted to be a member of my Guard.

I have to admit that it surprised me because I’d never considered it before.” He made sure he had her complete attention before he continued. “But I have to be honest with you, Stephanie. No matter how good your credentials, no matter who recommended you, I would never have allowed you to become a member of either mine or your mother’s Royal Guard.” “What? Why?!” She couldn’t believe he was saying this. She’d thought better of Jotham. “You need to watch something,” he said instead of answering. Pulling out his portable comm, he set it on the table so they could both see the screen then started a recording. Stephanie snapped her mouth closed silently fuming. She knew better than to argue with the King, but she also knew there was nothing Jotham could show her that could justify such blatant discrimination.

Still, she turned her attention to the recording. Her mother and Jotham were dancing. It was a recording of the Royal Ball. The music ended, and the couple moved across the floor to where Prince Barek and her brother, Danton, were standing. She’d seen this before. The news channels had shown the footage over and over again. She also knew that if she looked close enough, she could just make out her own image standing in the shadows, but only because she knew where to look. Then all hell broke loose. Adelaide Pajari pushed through the Assemblymen, screaming nonsense as she launched herself at Jacinda, her long hair restraints now deadly weapons in her hands. Jotham moved protectively in front of his future Queen when a guard was suddenly there pushing the Royal couple out of the way and taking the blow.

Stephanie knew that guard was her, knew that it was her back being stabbed over and over again. She took a shuddering breath then looked to Jotham. “Why are you…?” “Watch,” Jotham ordered, his gaze never leaving the screen. Stephanie instantly obeyed and for the first time she saw what happened after the public feed had been cut. People were screaming. House of Protection guards were moving in and quickly surrounded the Royal couple while the House of Knowledge cleared the hall. She frowned as her mother broke through her protection and rushed to the body on the floor. The recording couldn’t pick up what was being said, not until her mother screamed Stephanie’s name. “Why was she still there?” Stephanie demanded, her gaze shooting to Jotham. “Why didn’t the guards get both of you to safety?” “Because she wouldn’t leave you.

” Jotham’s gaze finally left the screen to bore into hers. “You are her daughter, and I would have had to physically carry her out of that room before she’d leave you like that. I couldn’t do that to her, or to you. Not when it might have been your last moments together.” He let that sink in. “Do you see now why I could never allow you to become a member of either Royal Guard?” “She would eventually understand…” “Really? In what situation can you see your mother understanding that she must leave when you are in danger? Where she wouldn’t hesitate if only for a moment?” he demanded. “It could cost her her life. I’ve already lost one woman I loved. I won’t lose Jacinda too. Not because of your dream.

” “I never had a chance, did I?” Stephanie slumped back into the couch. Jotham’s answer was brutally honest. “If your mother and I hadn’t become involved, then yes. You would have had a chance, an excellent chance, especially after Captain Chamberlain’s assessment of you. But now your life is forever changed, Stephanie., because of your injury, and because of my love for your mother. Just as it has been changed for your brothers, but that doesn’t mean your dream has to end completely. It just needs to change.” “Change?” Stephanie gave him a confused look. “What do you mean?” “Back when Lata was alive there were two sets of Royal Guards.

A King’s and a Queen’s, each with their own Captain. When Barek was born, a third was added. All three Captains answered to one person, a Commander. When Lata died, the Queen’s Guard was no longer needed, and the guards that wished to remain were absorbed into Barek’s and mine.” Stephanie couldn’t understand that. Who wouldn’t want to remain as a Royal Guard? It was one of the highest honors on the planet. Seeming to understand the look on Stephanie’s face Jotham elaborated. “Many of Lata’s Guard, especially those that had been with her that night, resigned their position, believing they were no longer fit to serve. When Barek joined the Coalition, the number of guards needed was reduced again. With there being only one full-time Royal Guard there was no longer the need for a Commander.

That’s all changed now. Jacinda now needs her own set of guards, as does Barek as he is now on planet full time. There is also the need for details for Danton, Ethan and his family, and of course, you.” “Me?” She didn’t even try to hide her disbelief. “What are you talking about? I am a guard. I don’t need one.” “You do because you are now a member of my family. I’ve read your file, Stephanie. It was impressive before you trained with Peter Chamberlain.” “That’s not going to do me much good now.

” “I disagree. You can still train and teach others the skills you’ve learned. All while making sure every member of the Royal Family is protected… as the new Commander of the Royal Guard.” ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ Stephanie stood naked in front of the mirror forcing her gaze to travel over the ugly, red scar that started near the center of her back and curved down along her ribcage on the right side. She’d been lucky to have only lost the one lung. She knew that. If the House of Knowledge’s Royal Healer hadn’t been so talented, she would have died. She knew that too, but it was still hard to be grateful for surviving when it meant she’d lost everything she’d ever wanted. Everything she’d ever dreamed of. Looking away from her reflection, Stephanie stepped into the already running shower and let the pounding heat of the water work its magic on her back.

Doctor Bliant had given her permission to soak in the bath to ease the muscle spasms she continued to have, but after so many cycles in the Coalition, she preferred the shower. Tipping her head back, she let the water saturate the chestnut curls that now brushed the back of her neck. She’d always kept her hair short and slicked back, even though the Coalition allowed women to grow theirs longer than the men. She worked security, and there was no way she was giving anyone the ability to use the thick mass against her. Now that was no longer an issue. Reaching out, she filled her palm with the citrus-scented shampoo her mother always had on hand for her and began working it into her hair. It was her favorite fragrance, and her mom regularly sent it to her when she was on tour. It was one of the many little things her mother always did for her children so they’d still know they were loved. It was something Stephanie had never given much thought to because… well, it just was. Like how her mother lived her life around her father’s career.

It was something Stephanie had never understood. Her mother was a smart, beautiful, intelligent woman who had served two cycles in the Coalition and yet she’d given it all up when she’d met Stephan Michelakakis. Jacinda had raised her daughter to be a strong, independent woman, telling Stephanie she could go anywhere, be anything she wanted. She could live her life on her own terms, and yet, Jacinda had never done the same thing. At least that’s what Stephanie had always thought, until recently, when her mother fell in love with Jotham. It was then that she’d realized her mother had lived her life just as she’d encouraged her daughter to; on her own terms. It shamed Stephanie now to think how she’d expected and even gone as far as to demand her mother give up Jotham so Stephanie could have her dream. If anything good had come out of her being injured, it was that she and her mother had grown closer and had truly begun to understand each other as women. For that, Stephanie would be eternally grateful. Tipping her head back, she rinsed the foam from her hair then stepped out of the shower.

Drying off, she pulled on the loose shorts and top Bliant had recommended she wear in bed, as opposed to the tight regulation ones she usually wore, which irritated her injury. Lying down in her childhood room, she enjoyed the bed that was so much larger than what she’d had growing up or her bunk in the Coalition. Pulling the amazingly soft covers up, she waited for sleep to claim her, but it didn’t come because her mind kept thinking about Jotham’s offer. To be the Commander of the House of Protection’s Royal Guards. To be the first woman Commander of any Royal Guard. It wasn’t the position she’d dreamt of. It wasn’t one she’d ever even considered possible. But still… Ancestors, she wished she could talk to her father. ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ “I remember how much you wanted to be the lead scorer for your youth sukan team.” Stephanie jerked awake and was startled to find she was sitting on one of the benches that surrounded the sukan court she’d lived on as a child.

Her father sat next to her. “You worked so hard to try and win that title from Jolene.” “But I never could.” “No, you couldn’t, but you didn’t let that stop you from trying. You just worked harder and eventually you became Jolene’s backup and were put in whenever she needed to rest.” “Which wasn’t often. Jolene was a natural.” “True.” She leaned forward nodding, letting her elbows rest on her legs, her hands clasped between them as her gaze traveled over the empty sukan court. “Until Megan was injured and you were put in.

” “I couldn’t believe the coach did that,” Stephanie murmured, remembering. “I’d never played that position before, had never even practiced at it.” “And yet you excelled at it, making it possible for your team to win that crucial game. It became your position from then on. Your natural position. One you never would have considered if it hadn’t been for that injury.” “What are you trying to tell me, Dad?” “That life is a wonderfully mysterious thing, Stephie. It presents us with multiple paths to follow but leaves it up to us to decide which one to take. You could have returned to your original position, the one you knew and trained for. It was the one that received the most attention and glory.

Instead, you worked even harder to learn the one you were needed at. In doing so, you became the most feared defensive player in the league.” “I found I liked it, liked being on the defensive side, defending instead of attacking.” “Which is why you chose security once you entered the Coalition.” “Yes.” “Your natural position is as a protector, Stephanie.” “A position I can no longer perform.” “True, at least not actively.” “What?” “Life is giving you a choice, Stephie. A dif erent path to follow than the one you were on.

A broader more encompassing one.” “You’re talking about the position Jotham of ered me.” “Yes, instead of protecting just one Royal you have the chance to protect all the Royals, which now includes your family.” “You’re saying I should take the position.” “No, I’m saying you have a choice to make. Life is a wonderful thing, Stephie, and it needs to be lived to its fullest. Don’t be afraid to take the path that makes no sense, the one you didn’t expect, because when you do, it just might lead you to where you were always meant to be.” ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ Stephanie opened her eyes and stared at her bedroom ceiling as her mind wandered back over the dream. It had been a dream. Right? She couldn’t have actually been talking to her father, could she? Ancestors, she missed talking to him.

He’d always been able to explain things so she saw all the different angles she’d missed before. It’s what he’d been doing in her dream. Letting her see that while her injury had been a devastating, life-altering experience, it didn’t mean her life or career was over. She could still do what she loved. What she was meant to do. She would just have to do it from a different position. No, she wouldn’t be able to personally protect the King, but she could make sure that the ones who did were the very best. She could also do the same for her mother, her brothers, sister-in-law, and nephews because in that Jotham had been right. They were going to need it too. Sitting up Stephanie took her time to swing her legs over the side of the bed.

Not being able to just jump out of bed and charge into her day was one of the things she was still learning to adjust to. It hadn’t been a problem when she’d first been injured since she’d still been recovering from major surgery. But now… Dr. Bliant had told her it would be this way from now on. Her body would need time going from being at rest to active. If she didn’t give it that time, then at best, she’d become dizzy and light-headed. At worst, she’d find herself face down on the floor. She hadn’t believed him. After all, she was a highly trained member of the Coalition and part of that training was to keep her body in perfect shape. So she’d ignored Bliant’s warning one morning and scared her mother out of her mind when she’d walked in to check on Stephanie and found her on the floor of this very bedroom.

Stephanie could still remember how mortified she’d been when her mother’s screams had brought every guard surrounding the house rushing in. Including Captain Deffand, who had just arrived to discuss something with Captain Green, the head of her mother’s guard. Deffand had been the first through the door, had been the one that had carefully lifted her up and placed her back on her bed. He’d been the one that ordered Green to call Dr. Portman, who had taken over Stephanie’s care once she’d arrived home. That had occurred the first week Stephanie returned home, and she hadn’t seen Deffand since, although she had heard her mother talking to him several times on her comm. It had taken Stephanie another three weeks to convince her mother that she’d recovered enough for Jacinda to return to the Palace and Jotham. Her mother had protested, claiming Jotham understood her need to spend her nights here. Stephanie had snorted at that because she’d overheard a few of the new couple’s comms. Jotham wanted his future Queen safely behind the Palace walls where he knew she was completely protected.

It was after one such conversation that Stephanie’s mind finally clicked back into security mode. She knew there was no threat against her mother because if there had been, Jotham would never have allowed her out of the Palace. But she also knew what it took to defend a Royal because she’d been preparing for it her whole life. She even knew exactly how many Royal Guards the House of Protection had, and how thinly stretched they had to be with the increase in Royals needing to be protected. Royal Guards were a specially trained unit within a House’s security division. They couldn’t just be promoted into the position. They had to first apply, and then, if they had the necessary skills were accepted into a grueling six-week training program that had a high failure rate. Only when all that had been completed could they claim a position as a Royal Guard. While the House of Protection ran this program, applicants were from every House, with the majority of them returning to serve their House if they completed the program. Even if all of the latest class chose to serve the House of Protection that was another ten guards, at most.

She had no idea how Deffand was able to schedule it all. It was what had made Stephanie reach out to her brother, Danton. He’d agreed to move back into their family home. Even then, it had taken another week to convince their mother to return to the Palace, easing Jotham’s mind. It had also meant there was one less location that needed guarding overnight. Now a full moon cycle after her brother had moved in, Stephanie was going to accept Jotham’s offer to be the Commander of the Royal Guards. That meant she’d be Deffand’s Commander too. How was he going to react to that? Would he accept her as his Commander after he’d seen her so weak and vulnerable? Would any of them? The thought shouldn’t bother after all, the King’s Captain was just another man to her. Wasn’t he? Pushing herself to her feet, Stephanie knew there was only one way to find out.

.

.

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